While Ireland can be damp and chilly, it's always sunny and warm when you are with Sharon Shannon.
The ever-smiling accordion player burst onto the music scene 21 years ago with her eponymous debut album, which still holds the record as the largest-selling Irish traditional music album. Her lively, fleet-fingered playing has made her an icon in Irish music, though she has not played in the U.S. in recent years. However, as part of what has become a de facto "St. Patrick's Month," she is doing an American tour in March, as are several of the top names in Irish traditional music.
To mark her 21 years as a solo artist, Shannon will be playing tunes from all of her albums, but is performing with only one other musician, multi-instrumentalist Alan Connor, who she said brings a new perspective to Irish music "that people will be imitating for years to come."
"Everywhere we go we have been getting standing ovations and not because of me, but because of Alan," she said. "It's a really new, fresh, exciting sound. And it's developing the whole time as well, every day. When we do sound checks, we just keep playing and really enjoy playing together -- new bits and pieces come into the gigs every day."
Shannon began performing at the age of ten and as a teenager was regularly playing at pubs. "I was perfectly happy to be able to make a living like that," she recalled. "It was a great time of my life."
But life changed quickly. She got the opportunity to play with the popular folk-rock band The Waterboys. "My first rehearsal with them was on my 21st birthday," she said, adding that a few days later she was on stage at a huge outdoor festival in front of thousands.
After a year and a half of playing with The Waterboys, Shannon recorded her debut album. "I had a huge, big advantage behind me," she said of being able to tap into The Waterboys fan base. The all-instrumental album set the formula for her career: a contagiously lively sound rooted in Irish music, but that was also something more. The cut "Blackbird" became ubiquitous in Ireland at the time.
Much has changed in the 21 years since Shannon's debut album, but, she said, "I'm still loving the music the same."
Although Shannon is considered a traditional musician, she has always added elements from outside the tradition, through atypical instruments or tackling songs from other genres.
"There are people that oppose any kind of change," she said. "I don't really kind of hang out in those circles so I don't let it affect me or let it get into my head. I just do my own thing and enjoy it.
"I absolutely adore the very straight traditional music," she continued. "That's what I was brought up with and totally respect it -- to me, it's my first love. The way I look at it with my music: If all my music was stripped down to just the accordion without any of the rock and roll instruments around me, what I'm doing myself is very rooted in [Irish tradition]." But, she adds, "I love playing with the rock and rollers."
In recent years, Shannon has gotten deeply involved with animal protection. She said that her love for animals began as child growing up on a farm.
"People wonder how I can be so happy all the time or seem so happy, and I am a happy, easygoing, happy-go-lucky kind of person. I always look at the bright side of most things, but something that deeply upsets me is cruelty to animals, so I try to do my bit. If not even an animal lover like me can stand up for animals, they haven't gotten much hope. So I decided to get up off my ass five or six years ago and get very actively involved in animal rescue."
She has become a patron of two nonprofit organizations, helping them raise money and awareness, such as the "Adopt, Don't Buy" music video she recently made, which features some of the rescued animals -- seven dogs and four cats -- she herself has adopted.
"The love an animal can give you is completely unconditional," she said. "You can come through the door 50 times a day and still get the same amazing welcome. Just amazing."
Other Irish bands touring this month include The Chieftains, whose members paved the way for what is now considered Irish traditional instrumental music, but was revolutionary when they began their career; Altan, one of the archetypes of the modern traditional band; and the mighty Lunasa, whose members bring a dazzling technique and expansive, jam-band-like improvisational element to Irish tunes. Forget the St. Patrick's Day green bagels -- catch these bands!
Shannon's video promoting an "Adopt, Don't Buy" campaign.
A vintage version of Shannon's first hit, "Blackbird."
The lads in Lunasa.